(Some summer posts will feature relational insights using The Big Bang Theory characters as a launching point. Enjoy.)
Leonard and Penny go out after Leonard’s break-up with Priya. Even though the two dated for years before the Priya interlude, they pretend to be on a first date for fun.
Penny shares that she’s from Nebraska, waits tables, dreams of being a movie star, and so far has acted in a hemorrhoid commercial and a production of Anne Frank (above a bowling alley).
Leonard reciprocates. He’s an experimental physicist who works in laser research, makes good money, and proudly claims to be king of nerds.
When Penny tells him he is funny he replies, “Good. Remember that when I take my shirt off.”
Sometimes Leonard suffers from the belief that he is not man enough for Penny. He thinks she deserves someone like her body-builder ex-boyfriend Kurt. Leonard is short, average-looking, nonathletic, asthmatic, and prone to low-esteem (thanks to his mother). His masculinity does not match Penny’s femininity.
In many regards Leonard and Penny’s relationship shouldn’t work because generally birds of a feather flock together. That is, we tend to end up with people who match us in degree of attractiveness (it's called the matching hypothesis). In romantic relationships we are especially drawn to people who are on the upper edge of our league but not beyond it. But in terms of looks, Penny is out of Leonard’s league.
We also tend to wind up with people who mirror us in demographics—something Leonard and Penny lack. They may both be Caucasian, but he’s upscale intelligentsia and she’s Midwest redneck; he earned his BSc, MSc & PhD while she finished high school and lied about attending community college; he enjoys upper middle-class income as a research scientist while she struggles with minimum-wage waitressing and nickels from acting. (Later this changes when she becomes a pharmaceutical rep.) Of course these differences make them interesting characters primed for humor.
But could this imbalance work in real life? Absolutely.
Leonard and Penny exhibit yin and yang. What he lacks in looks, she offers in spades. What Penny requires in brains, Leonard delivers in IQ. Compensating for each other's weaknesses goes a long way to bring unity to their relationship even if demographics don’t line up, and attraction is based on more than the physical—we like people for all the “social capital” they stand for.
The key to "opposite people" attracting is that their differences concern behaviors and resources, not attitudes and values. Leonard and Penny contrast sharply on careers, income, and hobbies (all considered what we do and have), but they deeply share the same value on friendship, community, sex, and fun. For example, when Penny’s car breaks down (a lack of resources), Leonard buys her a dependable used one (a show of resources, and a big sign of friendship).
Consider too that Penny complains that past boyfriends—mannish mega males—have been jerks. Dr. Dave Underhill posted online details of their sex life; Muscular Kurt derided Leonard and Sheldon when they picked up Penny’s TV. But Leonard treats Penny kindly, and this is refreshing and life-giving. In fact Penny could well judge Leonard better looking than he is objectively because his communication with her is warm and positive.
In a similar vein, when we really like someone, we tend to overlook differences and focus on similarities, even going so far as thinking we are more similar than we really are. This mild deception provides oil for smooth relating as we discuss and do things we both enjoy while side-stepping the barbs.
In short, Penny and Leonard enjoy equity—that sense of getting a fair deal because rewards and costs balance out or register as profit. Periodically they suffer from imbalance—such as the times Leonard insinuated that Penny would not be a good scavenger hunt partner and Penny got distracted by Dr. Underhill. But in the main they jive.
Sheldon’s Take: The matching hypothesis suggests we create long-term dyadic bonds with individuals who are similar in degree of attractiveness, yet compensating factors allow for mismatched attractiveness. Interactional positivity yields increased evaluations of physical appearance, and attending selectively to similar values and beliefs afford perceived homophily despite objective disparities.
The Penny Drops: While we aim to hang out with people we find highly attractive, we are realistic and usually partner with people similar to us. A lack of good looks can be shored up by other benefits such as money or kindness which usually leads to balance in the relationship. In these terms, opposites attract.
Resources: Berscheid, E., Dion, K, Walster, e., & Walster, G. W. (1971). Physical attractiveness and dating choice: A test of the matching hypothesis. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7, 173-189. Strong, S. R., Hills, H. J., Kilmartin, C. T., Devries, H., Lanier, K., Nelson, B. et al. (1988). The dynamic relations among interpersonal behaviors: A test of the complementarity and anti-complementarity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 798-810. Walster, E., Walster, G. W., & Berscheid, E. (1978). Equity: Theory and research. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Bill Strom, Author
I am a believer by faith, a professor by vocation, a husband by choice, a father by blessing, and a friend by hanging out. Along the way I have learned about close relating through my experiences, biblical models, and social science research. Hopefully my ideas and encouragement show up here in ways meaningful to you.